Italianate homes combine the Victorian style with an Italian Renaissance design.
The style flourished with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and featured cast-iron decor.
These two, three, or four-story homes are often rectangular and featured towers and belvederes.
You will find both highly ornamental or quaint farmhouse-style Italianate homes.
It's hard not to let out an "ooh" and "aah" when passing any Victorian home. But the Italian Victorian house—known as the Italianate style—was unsurprisingly one of the most ornamental and popular designs across Europe and the U.S. Whether you're questioning what type of home you have or spotted a beauty while on vacation, this far-from-subtle style has a long list of impressive features both inside and throughout its exterior.
The History of the Italianate-Style Home
In a time when decorative embellishments were all the rage—from Rococo style to Gothic Revival—a well-known British architect named John Nash saw another opportunity. The ornate Italian Renaissance villas and stunning farmhouses caught his eye, leading him to build the first Italianate-style house outside of Italy in 1802.
Over the next several decades, and all the way up to the 1880s, the Italianate Victorian style sprung up across North America as well. An American landscaper and author, A.J. Downing, inspired the expansion of the style across the states in the 1840s.
It's important to note that with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, cast-iron ornamentation was a main feature of many Italianate homes. The style lasted in the U.S. until about 1880, appearing in everything from smaller row homes and apartments to large mansions with sprawling gardens.
Exterior Features of an Italianate Home
One of the best ways to impress your friends and differentiate an Italianate home from other Victorian styles is its geometric form. Italian-style houses typically feature clear right angles, square or rectangular towers, and a line of arches across the front porch. Here are the most specific details to know.
1. Victorian Ornamentation
Much like the other Renaissance revival homes of the time, doors, windows, and eaves all feature elaborate decor around their trims. The front porch may feature ornate cast-iron handrails and sconces. Roof cresting often topped the eaves while ornate corbels sat just below them. Elaborate trim and pediments sat above windows and doors. Overall: the wealthier the builder, the more elaborate the style.
2. Rectangular or L-Shaped Structure
Italianate homes are either strictly symmetrical in a square or rectangular layout or have two arms that form an “L” or “J.” Unlike a Queen Anne home with its rounded spires and roofs, Italianates are nearly always squared-off around its edges.
3. Low-Pitched Roof
You can also spot an Italianate home by its relatively flat roofs. While there will be several floors in each home—and often a tower or belvedere in the center—the roofs on top of each level did not have a sharp pitch like its Gothic cousins of the time. The roof also featured far-overhanging eaves supported by ornately carved corbels.
4. Towers and Belvederes
Higher-end Italianate-style houses featured a square or rectangular tower or a belvedere (a type of cupola). Quite often, a tower reached from the first or second floor of the house, rising higher than the rest of the structure. Belvederes, however, sat independently on top of the house and allowed guests to sit inside to get a higher view of the area.
5. One-Story Porches
Wraparound porches were iconic features of Italianate homes, either with a symmetrical or asymmetrical shape off one side of the house. The front of the porch typically includes an arcade—or row—of decorative arches. Italianate row homes, on the other hand, often include stoops or small porticos.
Interior Features of an Italianate Home
Step inside an Italianate home and you'll find a wide variety of layouts, ornamentation, and popular decor trends of the time. The often-asymmetrical style allowed for greater flexibility depending on the needs of the owner.
1. Asymmetrical Layout
The layout of an Italianate home game homeowners room to play regarding where they'd place their living, hosting, and sleeping areas. Most larger homes featured a piano nobile, or a principal floor with all primary living areas. Central passageways encouraged guests to move from room to room with ease and the adorning belvedere welcomed in air, light, and a place to check out the views.
2. Dramatic Doors and Windows
The central front door was a major focal point of the home and often included double doors with ornate carvings. Smaller homes feature multi-paned, double-hung windows while larger ones included two tall windows side by side. Many of the first-floor windows rounded off at the top to match their rounded pediments or the arches on the adjoining porch.
3. Elaborate Decoration
It's no surprise that the embellishments on the exterior of their home worked their way inside as well. Carved door surrounds, mantelpieces, and room entryways featured decorative pilasters with fluted columns and dentil details. Ceiling medallions often sat at the center of the rooms to frame chandeliers.
Overall, Italianate homes balance a farmhouse simplicity with a Rococo flair. Whether designers leaned one way or the other depended on the preferences of the designer and the homeowner.
4. Unique Flooring
While we commonly associate simple hardwood flooring with most pre-20th-century homes, the Italianate style often went in a different direction. Softwood floors sat beneath wall-to-wall carpeting made of the Venetian-style woven rugs of the time. Other homes featured alternating squares or boards of multi-hued hardwood.
In homes that could afford the pricey material, you'd also find terracotta tiles throughout the flooring due to their durability.
Where Will You Find Italianate-Style Houses Today?
John Muir's house in Martinez California, the row homes of Cincinnati, and the David Davis Mansion in Illinois are all iconic Italianate homes of the time. Italianate homes are also iconic across the Jersey shore, in Brooklyn brownstone townhouses, and are one of the primary styles in historic New Orleans.
Living in an Italianate House
There are expected challenges that come with any 150-year-old home. But it does take some extra legwork to find the right contractors for historical homes. Luckily, some locations require contractors to register with the city to prove their expertise—one of the most common areas with Italianate homes.
However, updating elaborate ornamentation, reappointing brick walls, or replacing Venetian carpeting can all keep Italianate homes up to their original beauty. Be sure to hire a local general contractor who understands your home's historic structure before making changes.